The real story behind the Pope’s message to the Mafia: Hell exists and we all need to take this on board

Pope Francis and Father Luigi Ciotti, founder of the Italian anti-Mafia group Libera, participate in a prayer service for Mafia victims (CNS)

The Pope has just attended a vigil with a group of people who have been the victims of Mafia violence, which was organised by a Catholic group called Libera, which is one of the many anti-mafia organisations active in Italy. Libera was founded by a priest, don Luigi Ciotti. There is a report of the Pope’s participation in the vigil in this paper. And there is also a report on the BBC’s website, which is breath-talking in its ignorance.

The key words in the BBC’s report to which I object are as follows:

“The meeting near Rome on Friday – organised by a citizens’ group called Libera – was aimed at demonstrating the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to organised crime, rejecting historic ties with mafia bosses claiming to be good Catholics… Our correspondent says there is a long list of brave priests in Italy who have stood up to the mafia, and some have paid with lives. But he says that the wider Church has been accused of not doing enough to confront the gangsters. Anti-mafia activists hope that the Pope’s words are a signal that he is on their side.”

Where does one begin to comment on reporting such as this? First of all, the meeting was in Rome, in fact in a Roman parish, not far from the Vatican, at San Gregorio Settimo church. The meeting was a prayer vigil, which, believe it or not, was not aimed at demonstrating anything at all – that phrase suggests it was some sort of political stunt, or piece of showmanship. In fact it was an act of prayer, and acts of prayer are designed to turn souls to God, no more.

Moreover, the Catholic Church does not have to demonstrate to anyone that it is against the mafia. As Avvenire, the Italian Catholic paper points out, Pope Francis’s words closely echoed the words of John Paul II, on a visit to Agrigento, when he called the Mafia to repentance back in 1993. That, needless to say, was only one occasion among many when Popes have rebuked the mafia. Thus it is incredible, as well as deeply insulting, to imply that the Catholic Church has had “historic ties” with the mafia or otherwise colluded with them, or “not done enough” about the mafia. It is true that many brave priests have been killed by the mafia, but these priests were fully supported by their bishops, and to imply otherwise is slanderous.

One notes, however, that the BBC report does not substantiate these insinuations. There is a reason for this: it cannot. If it can, let us hear the names of the clerics who have supported the mafia, and just how they did that. Let us hear in particular the names of those convicted by the state of mafia membership or being “in odore di mafia” (that is, colluding with the mafia).

Needless to say the BBC correspondent missed the main interest in this story. It is not that the Pope is on the side of the victims of the mafia – that really is not news: would anyone seriously expect him to be anywhere else? The real news is that the Pope has spoken without equivocation of where membership of the mafia will lead: hell.

To quote the Holy Father:

“This life you have now, it will not give you pleasure, it will not give you joy, it will not give you happiness. The power, the money you have now from so many dirty deals, from so many Mafia crimes, blood-stained money, blood-stained power – you will not be able to take that with you to the other life.”

“There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road,” Pope Francis said. “You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that the BBC did not grasp the significance of these words. After all, for modern right-thinking people, hell is an anachronism. It is a myth, moreover a myth whose passing no one should regret, given that hell was used to terrorise so many in the past (or so we have been told).

Yet here is the Pope threatening people with hell, in other words telling them the truth, a truth which many who deny hell may find rather uncomfortable. The Pope speaks first of the existential hell on earth in which career criminals live, a place emptied of meaning because emptied of love. The hell of the hereafter is in logical continuity with this hell on earth. If you live like a mobster, you will make a hell for yourself, and indeed for others, here on earth, and you will also live with the consequences of your actions forever, in a never ending hell in the afterlife as well. Actions have consequences, and our moral actions produce consequences that we will have to live with forever. This makes complete sense to me, just as it has to two millennia of Christian believers. But no doubt that is something that our BBC reporter would much rather not think about.

Meanwhile, it is good to know that we have a Pope who is not intimidated by the counter-narratives of modernity, but will tell the truth without fear. Hell is real. People, and not just the mafiosi, need to take that on board.